My first encounter with actor William Finley (who died on 14 April from complications after surgery) was way back in 1974. It was not a personal meeting - after all, I was only 13 and living in a small town in Indiana. No, I was merely a fledging fan, spreading my motion picture wings a bit. Somehow, I had managed to convince my overprotective parents to let myself and a friend go to a midnight screening of The Phantom of the Paradise. They thought it was “stupid” to sit through a movie so late in the evening, but since I was now a teenager and had the permission of my pal’s parent, they reluctantly agreed. Funny thing is, to show how concerned everyone was about letting their budding adolescents out and about at the proposed witching hour, we got to ride our bicycles to the theater.
Brian DePalma was an unknown quantity then, at least to my still developing cinephile mentality, but with only two choices on the Mall marquee, Phantom was it (the other title escapes my memory at this moment). The ads and previews made the musical look like a lunatic horror comedy romp, a forbidden fruit experience our novice needs immediately recognized. It would be the perfect post-screening playground material, fodder for a dozen lunchtime dissertations and discussions. So Tom set up a sleepover, fitting Phantom into the overall plans. Oddly enough, after a few invites, it looked like only he and I would make the Grand Guignol leap. Everyone else seemed chicken, or just uninterested.
Pulling up to the bike rack, chain locks in hand, we immediately recognized we were out of our element. High schoolers and some college kids, adults and various specious mature types made up the vast majority of the crowd. This wasn’t a typical Friday or Saturday at the cinema, the viewership a combination of families, friends, and couples. No, this was a focused film contingent, a group that knew, more or less, what they were getting into. Adrenalin pumping, we bought our tickets and took seats among the masses. We got a lot of looks, mostly from those who figured we were mere novices venturing out into the wilds of the night unprepared and unprotected.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Finley plays Winslow Leach, an unknown composer who hopes god-like record producer Swan (‘70s songwriting fixture Paul Williams) will cotton to his material and jumpstart his starmaking machine. Instead, the despotic icon steals our hero’s tunes and frames him. Prison turns Winslow into a psycho and he becomes a victim of some vicious experiments - and a vinyl record press. Deformed, the newly dubbed ‘Phantom’ heads back to Swan’s domain, only to discover his domination over chanteuse Phoenix (Jessica Harper)...and his secret deal with the Devil. Killing off several acts on the producer’s powerful label, Winslow sets his sights on taking down Swan and saving the girl, or to die trying.
For someone whose frame of reference was the latest Disney live action releases, the usual cartoons, and umpteen visits with The Poseidon Adventure and/or The Legend of Boggy Creek, this was all too surreal - especially Finley. He looked like a man about to crack, a person possessed and unable to control their simmering inner demons. When he took the stage to sing the signature “Faust,” his wild-eyed persona was mesmerizing. In fact, once he was transformed into The Phantom, the lingering image of his initial performance added a weird, almost haunted subtext to the rest of the role. Finley was immediate. He was unusual and quirky and my middle school brain synced into his onscreen anger.
Oddly enough, though, the rest of the movie felt rotten (I have since reconsidered). At the time, I didn’t enjoy it, thought Paul Williams was awful, and Jessica Harper an unnecessary femme fatale. The rest of the music was more or less mediocre and none of it had the power of that first sonic encounter. I became equally fascinated by Finley…but then something strange happened. I never really caught up with him again. I never saw Sisters, was out of the loop for something like Eaten Alive, and thought The Fury was nothing more than a cavalier Carrie rip-off. Before long, Finley was vapor, an impact lost to the passage of time and the ephemera of memory.
When he turned up, decades later, in DePalma’s pathetic Black Dahlia film, I wasn’t floored. He had been forgotten and far from a current concern. As I marveled at how well (or better yet, weirdly) he had aged, I wondered why he wasn’t more prolific. A quick glimpse at IMDb suggests - well, nothing solid. He was in Simon (yes, I saw that - though I don’t remember him that well) and The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper’s last legitimate drive-in classic). He did some TV and a few obscurities. Like most actors who charge in, challenging the norm and leaving an impression, his fame found its way onto the shores of standard journeyman celebrity - and the tide simply came in and swept him away. A bit of post-RIP research indicates a love/hate relationship with the cult. He attended a few Comic-cons, even pimped a limited edition action figure of the Phantom.
Yet to me, William Finley will always be Winslow Leach, even after seeing him in all his previous incarnations (including a turn in DePalma’s bid for exploitation acceptance, 1968’s Murder a la Mod). It was the role that made the most sense to me, the part that played directly into that most elusive of internal determinations - the actor as actual person. While he could have been the greatest humanitarian in the history of the world, or the worst SOB imaginable, to me, Finley found the heart of who he really was in that five minute moment. That’s how I will always remember him, right or wrong…if I remember him at all.